December 30, 2013
Happy Nativity season to all my readers! May God bless you now and in the coming year.
This past Sunday, yesterday, we attended Mass at a nearby parish rather than driving a half hour to the Extraordinary Form Mass we normally attend because we were exhausted from the nine hour trip home on Saturday. The liturgical calendar called for the feast of the Holy Family and I was looking forward to hearing another great sermon by the pastor, but such was not to be.
Early on in his discussion of the Gospel he said, “Jesus was conceived outside of wedlock.” Then he proceeded to say that people looked down on Jesus and ridiculed Him because of this. The pastor could not have shocked me more if he had cast a bolt of lightening on my head. “Ay-yi-yi! Ach du lieber! Mama Mia! Merdre! Eheu! Aigoo! Good Grief!” If I knew the words for dismay in any more languages I’d write them here. Where do people get these cockamamie ideas? Especially a priest who was supposedly well-trained in Sacred Scripture in the seminary?
This is the second time in the past several months I’ve come across the “Mary was an unwed mother theme.” The first was when reading a supposedly Catholic book on families. What to do? When we got home I decided to research the subject so that I could write an informative and correct post and found an excellent article by Father Michael Griffin, O.C.D., in the EWTN library. St. Joseph: A Theological Introduction contained exactly what I was looking for, and could not have been a better source of meditation to celebrate the feast of the Holy Family. If any of you have come across this particular error, I hope this post will help clear the confusion.
Since the Bible is the inerrant Word of God we must be very careful to learn the exact meaning of all passages rather than making assumptions on meaning based on today’s life styles. Father Griffin writes in section one of his treatise (emphasis mine):
When the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary announcing that she was to become the Mother of God, she was, according to the account given by Saint Luke, “espoused to a man named Joseph”[Lk. 1:27]. The wording of the text is common to all modern versions of the Bible [and the 16th century KJV and Douay Rheims].
Commenting on this text, scripture scholars warn us that the word “espoused” is not to be equated with the word “engagement”. The words espousal and engagement are allied terms that are related to marriage, but they are not perfectly synonymous. The word espousal refers to the making of vows of marriage rather than to the ceremonies that surround the wedding; it implies that the couple have, in the strict legal sense, entered upon the state of wedlock.
Engagement, on the other hand, connotes only the “promise” of one day entering the state of matrimony, providing the present desires and wishes of the couple endure. Thus, to understand the phrase of Saint Luke “espoused to a man named Joseph” as meaning that Mary was engaged to him at the time, would not do justice to the text. Saint Luke is simply saying that Mary and Joseph were already married when Mary became the Mother of God.
Why, then, does Saint Luke use the word “espoused” instead of the word “married”? Would it not have been clearer and more simple for him to use the second?
It must be remembered that according to the Jewish custom of the time there were two steps that lead to marriage as we understand it today. First, the couple exchanged their matrimonial consent in a special ceremony. Today we would say they pronounced their marriage vows. In virtue of this they were joined together as man and wife in the eyes of God and in the eyes of the law. From that time they had all the rights and privileges accorded to husbands and wives. According to Jewish law if the man died, the woman was considered as his widow and was entitled to his inheritance. If the woman was unfaithful to him, she would be punished as an adulteress; neither could she remarry without first obtaining a bill of divorce.
The second step was the solemnization of the marriage or the celebration of the wedding festivities. According to the means of the couple, the wedding feast was celebrated as elaborately as possible. The man would come to the home of the bride and in public procession he would escort her to his home. Then they would begin their life together.
This second part of the ceremony took place many months after the exchange of the wedding vows. And it is for this reason that Saint Luke tells us that they were “espoused” at the time of the Annunciation. The meaning is clear. At the time of the apparition of the Angel they were not living together as man and wife for the wedding festivities had not as yet taken place, but they were married in the eyes of God since they had already exchanged matrimonial consent.
Clearly then, Jesus was not conceived outside of wedlock, nor was Mary an unwed mother. And nowhere that I know of was it written in the Bible that Jesus was looked down on because Mary became pregnant with Him before going to live in Joseph’s home.
This article by Father Griffin inspired me because it details God’s plan for making the Holy Family appear to be just like any other family of devout Jews and the important role St. Joseph played in all of it, especially in protecting Jesus and Mary. If you already have a devotion to St. Joseph or you are looking for a rich subject for meditation on this part of the Gospel of St. Luke, I highly recommend this article. Don’t be put off by the title which may make you think it will be dull and boring. By the time you finish it you will be filled with joy, wonder at God’s love for us, a greater appreciation for St. Joseph, and you will also be able to counter the nonsense about Mary being an unwed mother when you hear it.
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R. Now and forever!
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